The Americans Elect mission is perfectly engineered to get free media. It’s also gooey and pointless. Leave aside all of the reasons why third parties don’t win. The big problem is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the problems that centrists have with Washington. Their problem is that Congress can’t do anything, that the incentives for last-minute brinkmanship are always high, and that anyone can stop a bill. In the Americans Elect dream scenario, when a Jon Huntsman/Joe Lieberman ticket takes the White House to demand entitlement cuts and tax hikes, what’s to prevent Congress from blocking nominees or throttling legislation? Easy answer: Nothing prevents that.
There’s dross and silliness in the “Make Congress Work!” agenda, too. Joe Lieberman made it to the launch right after a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, where he’d called Americans Elect “intriguing.” The idea Lieberman floated—prime minister’s question time-style rap sessions with the president—had once been broached by John McCain. “It would give us opportunities to say things we don't say,” said Lieberman, “like heya, heya or harrumph harrumph.” Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa proudly announced that he grew up “in a No Labels household,” where he apparently learned to lay on pathos very thick.
“This whole No Labels conference should be dedicated to my friend Gabby Giffords,” he said. “If you had been there when she came back to the House, you’d have seen how partisanship melted away, replaced by friendship.” The big idea that came out of the Giffords shooting, the one that made it onto the No Labels 12? Making members of Congress sit next to each other on the House floor.
When Braley said that, I remembered the last time I’d been in the room No Labels had booked for the launch—the caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building. It was June 8, when a funfetti combo of right-wing groups launched Cut, Cap, Balance—a pledge to support a debt-limit hike only if it came with spending cuts, a spending cap, and a version of the Balanced Budget Amendment that demanded a supermajority for tax increases. They lost, but only after delaying a compromise on the debt and after getting most GOP presidential candidates to agree to their conditions.
That was the antithesis of what No Labels was trying to do. One of the 12 agenda items was a pledge never to sign pledges. But the groups behind Cut, Cap, Balance understood that power doesn’t flow out of a presidential campaign. It flows out of boring procedural decisions. Much of the time, activists realize that this stuff is boring, and they try to make bigger splashes with things, like online presidential conventions, that the news cycle can handle. So if 2012 is going to be a year of noisy centrists, it’s good to see them sweating the dull, important stuff.